Monday, May 18, 2015

I Met Aron Ra

Yesterday I went to a discussion group here in New York about secularism and politics led by well known YouTuber Aron Ra, and later I got to go to dinner with him and a few other people. As a self-described antitheist, he's mostly known for being an ardent defender and educator of evolution and critic of the nonsense and deception of religion and creationism. Last March, Aron, along with Matt Dillahunty of the Atheist Experience, and Seth Andrews of the Thinking Atheist podcast did a three city tour of Australia aptly named the Unholy Trinity Tour. Here's Aron's presentation on biblical absurdity:

A lot of interesting topics were discussed at the meeting, including my own pet peeve of libertarian atheists who care more about small government and low taxes, and will often vote republican because of those issues, even though those republicans want to tear down the wall between church and state. I was glad to see Aron is no fan of libertarianism. Another thing we discussed is why the meeting wasn't full for such a small venue. I said it was most likely because New York is such a liberal, secular city, and atheists here don't have to deal with religious fundamentalists like many people in the South do. This makes atheists in New York more like apatheists, who simply don't give a shit about religion and secular issues. Without a common religious threat and with such a hospitable environment to live in, we're just not as motivated as atheists in the Bible belt. But in a weird way, that's a good thing. We've achieved here in New York what atheists in South and the Middle East are trying to achieve: a secular society where you won't get fired for being an atheist, or have your family disown you, and where no one really gives a shit about religion. But that shouldn't mean we get complacent. There are plenty of battles out there to be fought, and our fellow atheists and secularists around the world need our help.

Check out Aron's YouTube channel and blog The Ace of Clades.

Saturday, May 16, 2015

Things That Keep Christian Theists Up At Night (Answered by an Atheist)

A continuation of Randal Rauser's post about things that keep atheists and Christian theists up at night. See here for my response to the things he thinks keep atheists up at night.

1. If God exists, why isn’t His existence as obvious as the physical world?

He doesn't exist. That's why the physical world shows no trace of objective evidence god exists. But if he does, and sends people to hell for not believing in him, and makes his existence extremely ambiguous, god is a monster. Even if not, why would god make his existence ambiguous if he created us to know him? That makes no sense. So there must be another reason why he created us. Here you can pull any ol' idea out of your ass.

2. Why is there so much pain and suffering?

Because the universe doesn't care about our existence. Things happen by chance and natural processes, all of which are indifferent to our pain, suffering, and existence.

3. Why isn’t there better historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection?

Because Jesus didn't actually get resurrected, and may not have even existed. The historical record is compatible with this.

4. How can God know the future and there still be free will?

I don't think god knowing the future in and of itself precludes free will. I think free will in and of itself isn't logically supported, and certainly isn't supported by any scientific evidence. Another way to look at this question is if in universe X you are an atheist and go to hell, and if in universe Y you are a Christian and go to heaven, if god chooses to materialize universe X over Y, knowing that this would guarantee you an eternity of suffering, why would he do that, as opposed to just preventing you from existing in the first place?

5. Why are there so many morally questionable things in the Bible about God (Canaanite genocide, etc.)?

Easy. The Bible was written by primitive people who invented god in their own racist, sexist, homophobic, and bloodthirsty image.

6. Why are there so many contradictory religions to my own?

Because all religions are man-made. That's the best explanation of it.

7. The existential hiddenness of God

Best explained by god not existing.

8. The driving out/slaughter of the Canaanites

Mostly likely a made-up narrative to give the early Israelites a tale that can distinguish themselves from the Canaanites, who they branched off of, since there is no evidence to show those conquests actually happened.

9. The immortality of the soul

Doesn't exist. No evidence for it. Based on fantasy and ignorance.

10. The remote possibility that Calvinism might be true.

I've had a few Christians argue with me that Calvinism is the best interpretation of the Bible. Many Calvinists own up to the fact that Yahweh is sort of a prick, and is not omni-benevolent, but he's the boss and that's that. I don't take any serious positions on this. It's all fairy tales to me under the label "religion."

In every case the atheistic answer is the much simpler and more plausible answer.

Things That Keep Atheists Up At Night (According to Randal Rauser)

Here's a list of what Randal Rauser thinks keeps atheists up at night from his blog. Let me provide brief answers.

1. Nobody to thank for all my “blessings” and nobody to blame for the converse.
    This is not a problem for the atheist and I've never heard a single one tell me this keeps them up at night. No one is blessed or cursed under atheism. Our fortunes and failings are due to chance, by way of our genetics, our families, our environment, and innumerable other contingent factors. We accept that based on the evidence. We're thankful to the things that have actually mattered in our lives, which in most cases are other human beings.

    2. Implications of nihilism.
      If you view nihilism as there simply being no objective meaning or purpose to life, then the atheist is fine with that. It's only someone who feels that life is required to have objective meaning or purpose that is bothered by the idea of not having it. That's one of the reasons why religions try to make you emotionally dependent on them. They try to make you feel as if you need these things and then they try to offer you them. I explain this in my religion/heroin analogy. Atheism doesn't imply that there cannot be any meaning at all. Meaning and purpose in life are subjective, and many of us atheists find this a lot more comforting.

      3. Failure to rebut moral relativism. 
        Some atheists are fine with the idea of moral relativism, but those who are not have plenty of moral philosophies to choose from that address the issue. But the question is, what kind of moral relativism are we talking about? Is it cultural relativism? Situational relativism? Even most theists acknowledge situational relativism. Also the Euthyphro dilemma addresses the claim that god gives us objective morality quite well.

        4. Classical theism makes the strongest case for (what I would label) objective morality. 

        If you define objective morality (which Randal didn't do on his post) in such a way that it can only be served by theism, then perhaps. The claim that only theism can make a strong case for objective morality is again challenged by the Euthyphro dilemmaIs something good because god commands it, or does god command it because it's good? The first part makes morality arbitrary, and the latter makes god irrelevant to what's good. The standard response is that god is the good – god is the ontological foundation of goodness because he is intrinsically loving, compassionate and fair, etc. But then we can ask, is god good because he has these properties or are these properties good because god has them? In order to avoid compromising god's sovereignty and admitting that these properties are good independently of god, the theist who wants to hold to the moral argument must say that these traits are good because god has them. But how is love, compassion, fairness or any other positive attribute good only because god has them? They would be good irrespective of god's existence, as would be evident by their effects. The theist would bear the burden of proof to demonstrate that they wouldn't be good without god, which I haven't yet seen anyone successfully achieve. Thus it's clear to me at least that objective moral values - if they exist at all - exist independently of god.

        5. Relationship with God is transformative in the life of a believer in ways that the atheist will never experience. One example is the hope believers have in the face of death. 
          Plenty of false gods and false beliefs transform people in ways a Christian will "never experience." The way belief in god effects you is not an indicator that the god you believe in is real. Hope for an afterlife is just false conciliation, and most atheists reject this belief for exactly that reason (and because there's no good evidence for it). Atheists live in the here and now. We live for this life, not some fairy tale existence promised to come. Belief in an afterlife often devalues this life. 

          Sunday, May 10, 2015

          The Most Pressing Moral Issue Of Our Time

          What's one of the most pressing moral issues of our time? I'll give you a hint, it has little to do with religion.

          It's rising income inequality.

          To get a sense of the problem, let's take a look at some data.

          According to a recent Pew finding, income inequality is at its "highest level on record." Basically, over the last 30 years the wealthy keep getting more wealthy, and the middle and lower income classes have either remained flat or have gotten poorer. This is what's increasing the wealth gap.

          Since 1983 the wealth of lower income Americans has gotten lower, for middle income Americans it's remained flat, and upper income Americans have doubled their wealth

          What economic policies did we begin using 35 years ago? Oh right, reaganomics, also known as supply-side economics, or more colloquially, trickle-down economics. It's the theory that the wealthy are the job creators, and if we only made them more wealthy, they'd have more money to spend and invest, and that will help create jobs and their wealth will "trickle down" into the lower income brackets. Sounds nice on paper, the only problem is that it doesn't work.

          Courtesy of Nick Hanauer

          Monday, May 4, 2015

          Please Donate To the Nepal Relief Efforts!

          I gave $10 recently to assist the relief efforts after the devastating earthquake recently. Large numbers of small donations make a big impact. The way I think of it is like this: if I can waste ten dollars on some watered down drink at some pretentious bar that I got absolutely no pleasure out of, I can spend ten dollars to help those suffering right now from a disaster. Fuck yeah I can. It's the least I can do.

          Be an example of secular humanism at work!

          Click here to donate to the Red Cross

          Donate here through the Foundation Beyond Belief

          When Do We Set Aside Our Differences And Just Be People?

          Sometimes it feels as if the society is so polarized that we're unable to set aside our differences and just be people. While I know that a large number of people are not politically, ideologically, and religiously motivated, when we become deeply committed and passionate about a cause, it can make us look at everyone opposed to it as an enemy, unfit for benefiting from the tiniest amount of our money and hard work. This has the ill effects of furthering a divisive society, and turning us into cold-hearted sociopaths.

          Nobody passionate about a political, ideological, or religious goal wants to help those who are against them. We don't want our time, energy, and money supporting those who are likely to use it to support goals antithetical to ours. So where do we draw the line? Can a careful balance be found that allows for both the solidarity that a humane society requires, while paying careful attention to where our money and energy goes to, so as to minimize helping those who oppose our views as much as possible?

          Wednesday, April 29, 2015

          Oh The Humanity (Or Lack Thereof)

          Here's an alarming statistic. Nearly as many people have been killed by American law enforcement officers since January 1st, 2014 than people who have been killed by UK law enforcement officers since 1990. 

          I almost couldn't believe it, but it's true. (See here and here) There have been at least 1484 people killed by US law enforcement officers since January 1st, 2014, while the number of people killed by UK law enforcement officers since 1990 is 1510. Something is wrong here.

          While I do not condone the rioting in Baltimore over the police killing of Freddie Gray, the larger conversation that the incident is bringing to light, is our failed government and economic policies of the past 40 years that have created a permanent underclass through the disappearance of middle class jobs, a failed education system, and tax cuts and bailouts for the rich through the lies of trickle down economics.

          After work I attended the peaceful protest in Union Square against police brutality. Here are some pics.

          Check out Killed by Police

          Sunday, April 26, 2015

          Night Of Philosophy

          Last Friday night I went to an event called "Night of Philosophy". It took place at the French Embassy here in New York and the Ukrainian Institute of America. The idea is interesting: 12 straight hours of half hour presentations giving by many world-renowned philosophers on a variety of topics from logic, to existence, to religion, to god and science. Entry was for free. Oh yeah, and there was a bar. Given how all this stuff is right up my alley, I went straight after work.

          Although it was 80 degrees last weekend, this weekend it was 40 degrees. Other than having to wait about 35 minutes in the cold with ferocious winds, the event was very unexpected treat. I missed David Albert's presentation on the arrow of time, but I did get to see presentations from many philosophers I've taken an interest in, including Massimo Pigliucci, Alex Rosenberg, and Tim Maudlin.

          Alex Rosenberg gave a speech in defense of scientism and included a PowerPoint slide with his "answers" to the biggest perplexing philosophical questions:

          Is there a God? No.
          What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.
          What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.
          What is the meaning of life? Ditto.
          Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?
          Is there free will? Not a chance.
          What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? Nothing beyond the emotions mother nature selected us for having.
          Does human history ave any lessons for the future? Few and fewer, if it ever had any.

          Sunday, April 19, 2015

          Thoughts On The Randal Rauser/Justin Schieber Debate

          So the debate between Randal Rauser and Justin Schieber from last month is online and having just watched it I thought I'd weigh in. Randal Rauser is a trained theologian and Christian apologist. What I like about him is that he isn't just another William Lane Craig clone, of which there are far too many. He makes his own arguments for god his own way and I always want to see the real reasons why theists believe what they do. Here, Randal offers a few of the arguments that help convince him god is real. I'll offer some thoughts on why I don't find them convincing.

          First, Randal defines god as a "necessarily existent, non-physical agent, who is omniscient, omnipotent, and perfectly good." This is the basic god of classical theism which I think was a good idea for Randal to define upfront so there's no confusion. The only problem I have of course is the "necessarily existent" part. I know that many classical theists view god as necessarily existent, but there is often an attempt to define god into existence this way that I think is little more than wordplay. Thankfully, Randal does not try to make that argument for god in this debate.

          Randal outlines his three main arguments:

          1. Rational belief in god doesn't require evidence
          2. God is a legitimate philosophical explanation
          3. God best accounts for the cognitive faculty of moral intuition

          Let's go over them one by one.

          1. Rational belief in god doesn't require evidence

          Randal first defends the idea that rational belief in god doesn't require evidence. He tries to argue that it is properly basic, much like the belief in an external world. "One need not have evidence for god to believe rationally that god exists," Randal declares. He later says, "Belief in god can be produced in conditions which qualify it as properly basic." He tells the story about a non-religious Canadian rock musician who walked into a church in New York one day and was "struck by overwhelming spiritual presence." But so what? As Randal himself observes, "Millions of people have formed belief about god with the same naturalness and immediacy, the same phenomenology of self-presentation that [the Canadian rock musician] experienced." In other words, millions of people have formed belief in other gods as well as non-gods as a result of spiritual experience. There is no special power Christianity has in the spiritual domain. 

          Tuesday, April 14, 2015

          Fareed Zakaria: Criticizing Islam Will Not Change It

          It seems that almost every week on Real Time with Bill Maher the topic of Islam comes up and its relationship with violent terrorism. Last week Fareed Zakaria was on and criticized Maher's attitude towards Islam when they were talking about the recent conviction of the Boston Bomber.

          “My problem with the way you approach it,” Zakaria said, “is I don’t think you’re going to reform a religion by telling 1.6 billion people — most of whom are just devout people who get some inspiration from that religion and go about their daily lives — I don’t think you’re going to change religion by saying your religion is the motherlode of bad ideas, it’s a terrible thing, you know. Shape it up and change it. I think frankly, you’re going to make a lot of news for yourself and you’re going to get a lot of applause lines and joke lines out of it. But if you really want to change those people, if you want to change that religion, then what you have to do is push for reform but also with some sense of respect for what the spiritual values that people think.”  

          Salon is running a headline that Maher is a bigot and that anyone who's a fan of Maher is a bigot too. He's not. Maher is simply acknowledging the facts. He's not selling "blanket intolerance." But he's not going to issue blanket tolerance either. The problem is that the "spiritual values" that a large number of Muslims think are not quite so pretty, and it is not bigoted to point this out anymore than it is to point out the nasty beliefs that many other ideologies have. Sure, hundreds of millions of Muslims are hard working people who get spiritual strength from their religion, and who are peaceful people. We all know that. But why should I have to pretend that Islam is peaceful religion, with a peaceful philosophy, in order to reform it? Maher, Zakaria, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and I, along with millions of moderate Muslims, all want Islam to reform. Some of us, like Maher, Ayaan, and I, don't want to have to lie to achieve a strategic goal. We don't want to have to act like politicians. We want to be honest.

          I'm not even sure that pretending Islam is a religion of peace in order to reform it is the best strategy to reform Islam. Maybe it is. Maybe harsh criticism of Islam is. I don't know. At least some people leave Islam when they see harsh criticism of it. The problem with a large part of the Islamic world is that there is little tolerance for free speech that criticizes Islam, and religious indoctrination is rampant. Perhaps a little criticism will do some help. I honestly think both strategies should be employed. You can have your firebrands and your accommodationists each doing their part, each making the case in their own way, that religions need to live exclusively in the twenty-first century.

          Sunday, April 5, 2015

          Alan Watts On Ontology

          Alan Watts, a favorite philosopher of mine, had a very interesting spiritual way of looking at the universe, that as far as I can tell, can be perfectly compatible with naturalism.

          Watts rejected what he called the "two models." One is what he called the ceramic model, and the other is what he called the fully automatic model. The ceramic model of the world is the traditional theistic view that the world was something created by god, just as a potter creates a pot, and a carpenter creates a table. It is the idea that the world is made as an artifact through some sort of an act of supernatural will. And this creator god is the ruler of this universe and resides as a king. The fully automatic model, is the traditional atheistic or naturalistic view of the world where the universe exists almost as some kind of blind, unintelligent machine, and that humans are just a chance fluke in its history.

          Watts didn't think either two models made sense. So instead, he held to a view that the universe was something musical. The universe was a symphony, it was a piece of music. And just like how when making music, the goal isn't to get to the end of the piece as quick as possible — that would make it so that the shortest songs are the best. No. Rather the point of the music is the music itself. It isn't necessarily going anywhere. The unfolding of the universe is the purpose, beauty, and audacity of this symphony.

          This is a very interesting view of the world, and one that at first I found hard to imagine. I've recently been thinking about it again and am willing to consider it plausible. There is nothing I see completely absurd about the idea of the universe as a piece of music, so long as one doesn't imagine a musician playing it, like it was the musical piece of some deity. I'm not sure if Watts saw this idea of a musical universe as a metaphor or something literal. If only seen as a metaphor it can be construed with naturalism. And although I'm still a metaphysical naturalist in the traditional sense of the term, this idea that the universe is naturally musical, I don't suddenly object to. Watts called this the organic model.

          What To Make Of The Evidence For An Afterlife?

          What are we to make of the evidence for an afterlife? Here are your options.

          There is either:

          • Some ill-defined metaphysical substance, not subject to the known laws of physics, that interacts with the atoms of our brains in ways that have thus far eluded every controlled experiment ever performed in the history of science


          • People hallucinate when they are nearly dead

          Which option do you think makes the most sense?

          The United States Was Not Founded On Judeo-Christian Principles And Here's Why

          From the Freedom From Religion Foundation:

          "The principles behind Judeo-Christianity are fundamentally in conflict with the principles that the Declaration of Independence lays out."

          Romans 13:1-7 says:

          Let every soul be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and the authorities that exist are appointed by God.2 Therefore whoever resists the authority resists the ordinance of God, and those who resist will bring judgment on themselves. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good works, but to evil. Do you want to be unafraid of the authority? Do what is good, and you will have praise from the same. 4 For he is God’s minister to you for good. But if you do evil, be afraid; for he does not bear the sword in vain; for he is God’s minister, an avenger to execute wrath on him who practices evil. 5 Therefore you must be subject, not only because of wrath but also for conscience’ sake. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for they are God’s ministers attending continually to this very thing.

          Does this sound compatible with the Declaration of Independence? And also, how dare some on the Christian Right be for no taxation. It is a Christian duty to obey the government and pay taxes.

          Sunday, March 29, 2015

          Ayn Rand's Objectivism and Libertarianism

          I've had several close encounters with libertarians recently and I have to be honest with you, many of them piss me off as much as, if not more, than religious fundamentalists. There is a fairly popular libertarian niche today that is quite outspoken and very ideologically driven, and it seems to have a lot of young people in their ranks. There are also quite a few atheists who are libertarians and I've been noticing them as I go out into my local atheist/philosophical meetups.

          Although I am sympathetic to some of the libertarian social views like marijuana and prostitution legalization, when it comes to economics and government I have some sharp disagreements with them. Many libertarians that I've spoken to either want no government at all, or government so small it can be drowned in a bathtub, to paraphrase Grover Norquist. But mostly, they want a total "free market" economy where government regulation is non-existent, and some even want the total privatization of education, law, police, and the military.

          Not all libertarians hold to Ayn Rand's Objectivist philosophy, but many do. She's the ideological darling of many on the Right. Her fan boys include Wisconsin Congressman Paul Ryan, who said that her books are "required reading" for his interns. The interesting thing is that Ayn Rand was an outspoken atheist, and it's odd how so many on the Right identify with her, given the Right's close associations with religion. As far as her atheism is concerned, we're on the same page. We both see religion as something irrational and not justified by any good evidence. But Rand's philosophy emphasizes a kind of ethical egoism, whereby she thought that we should never sacrifice anything important to us for the benefit of someone else who was not important to us, like a stranger who was suffering. She thought taxation was theft, but still believed in government doing the three basics: police, law, and military. (This would be financed by voluntary donations according to her.) All the money you make would be yours to keep and there's no concern for any kind of "greater good." Rand's philosophy is a fervent objection to utilitarianism. If fact, recently when I mentioned my concern for the "greater good" when I was debating economics with a libertarian, he literally walked out on me.

          Saturday, March 28, 2015

          Some Religious Believers Are Scared For Their Religious Freedom

          Many religious conservatives in the US are publicly afraid of the loss of their religious liberty. They see the possibility of their religious identity and expression truly becoming illegal and extinct. These concerns are echoed widely among prominent members of the religious right. Conservative pastor Rick Warren said religious liberty is the civil rights issue of our day, 2016 presidential hopeful Ted Cruz thinks the government is waging an "assault" on religious liberty, and Louisiana governor and Christian convert Bobby Jindal says religious liberty is at stake due to increasing secularism.

          There is no doubt about it. The US is becoming more secular and less religious. As it has been widely reported, the recent 2014 GSS survey shows that 21% of Americans claim no religious affiliation and are categorized as the "nones". As many as 7.5 million people may have left religion just since 2012. This is an increase of the nones of about 2 percent since 2012. Many religious conservatives are disturbed by these trends and scared that this increasing secularization is fueling a hostile attitude towards religious expression and some actually fear the government is attempting to make religious expression, or being religious, illegal.

          Is there any truth to their claims? What would I do if I were in control of the law?

          First, for far too long the religious zealots have been violating the separation of church and state, by enacting laws that teach creationism in schools, preaching politics from the pulpit while remaining tax exempt, displaying the 10 commandments on government property, trying to enforce religious morality onto non-believers, and many, many others. When these violations get challenged, religionists often react as if their religious liberty is being infringed. But right-wing paranoia is almost always fueled by ignorance and rarely turns out to have a strong factual basis. There are no attempts by the government to make religious expression illegal. There are attempts to make sure the the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment is respected. Secularists like myself do not want to take anyone's religious freedom away, we want to make sure it stays out of government - where it doesn't belong, and we don't want people to be able to use "religious liberty" as an excuse to discriminate.

          To be a true secularists who holds to the basic separation of church and state principle means that you do not suppress the free expression of religious beliefs. But, if those religious beliefs violate basic civil rights of equality, then in my opinion, civil rights trump religious expression. That means you should not be allowed to discriminate against someone's race, religion - or lack thereof, gender, national origin, or sexual orientation on grounds that your religion requires you to do so in all government facilities and institutions, as well as in private businesses that cater to the general public. When the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, it outlawed racial discrimination in "public accommodations" like hotels, motels, restaurants, and theaters. Many segregationists strongly objected to the idea of government forcing private business owners to serve black people equally. But if this stipulation was not there, most of the white-owned private businesses in the South would have continued their discrimination against black people, and in effect, we would have still had segregation, perhaps even to this day. I see the discrimination perpetrated in the name of religion the same way.


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